Program Management—Keeping Your Product on Schedule

Maintaining a real-time understanding of your startup’s engineering program is one of the most difficult challenges you face as hardware startup founder. Based on my personal experiences as an Engineering leader and in helping almost fifty Lemnos startups face this challenge, there comes a day when a founder can no longer accurately keep their entire product development process in their heads.


Why Do We Need an EPM?

As we discussed in our previous blog post, “Choosing The Right Role As Your Company Grows: Engineering Founder,” as your company grows, you need to start thinking about hiring more than just more engineers. When your team size gets above a certain number and you move from prototyping to principal engineering, two things happen:

  1. Your process complexity increases tremendously, which creates more communications.
  2. You can no longer be the hub for all communications and handle all other founder tasks.

We have seen issues arise when companies’ internal engineering reaches 15-20 engineers and the total team size is closer to 30. Progressively bigger issues fall through the cracks, either between team members and sometimes through processes that haven’t scaled as your team did.

As your organization grows and your development effort scales, someone needs to ensure the product meets the functional, quality, and business goals that are critical for the product’s (and your startup’s) success. Someone who, at every moment’s notice, understands and guides the entire development program when you run out of bandwidth—an Engineering Program Manager (EPM).

A Program Manager should have wide rather than deep knowledge, and nothing on the product “train” should escape their attention. They are your product whisperer. If anything happens to your product, your Program Manager should know before it happened.


When Do I Need to Start Recruiting For an EPM?

Like many other roles, start the recruiting process when you feel strain versus breakage. I’ve heard from many engineering founders that in retrospect, they knew small mistakes were starting to happen due to their lack of bandwidth and attention, but they thought this would either recede over time. It is important to understand that the recruitment and onboarding process will take time and your program is climbing the complexity curve very quickly!

“Before an EPM, we had fragmented communications and piecemeal project/program management—different teams would use different tools. Three months after we hired an EPM, we’ve gotten our teams to march to the beat of one drum and developed the tools and process around our development to really tighten things up,” notes Jason Calaiaro, co-founder and hardware lead at Marble. “One of the biggest impacts is that I am not concerned about whether our product team is marching along. I could step away for a week and know that, so long as we’re pointed at the right goal, we’re going to succeed.”

What Are the Different Kinds of EPMs?

Two main styles of Engineering Program Management evolved from different corporate cultures, and it is important to know these differences when hiring an EPM so you can best match your startup’s needs and culture.

  • Tech Generalists: Program Managers who learned their trade at groundbreaking, early products at companies like Apple tend to be technology generalists with deep organization and people skills. Their superpower is organizing and corralling complex engineering programs, using massive EQ to get disparate high performers to work together.
  • Alpha Technologists: EPMs drawing their lineage from cultures like Microsoft, on the other hand, are alpha technologists, having direct managerial responsibility for program assets and the ability to “hot seat” into almost any engineer’s desk to help solve a technical problem and keep the program on track.

Both of these EPM varieties are powerful, but one values wide versus deep technology prowess. Both rely on EQ, but one has more direct control and one relies on matrixed or soft management.

  • EJMs: There is another variety of Program Manager, sometimes referred to as an EJM (Engineering Project Manager). EJMs often focus more on the schedule (MS Project, GANNT charts, etc.) associated with a program than the daily operations and program oversight associated with the EPM role. While an important asset, especially in very large and complex systems, we’ll stay focused on EPM.


What Should I Look For in an EPM Candidate?

    1. Communication Skills: When recruiting, look for very strong communications skills, both verbal and written. If they know about problems but can’t communicate them to the organization in a concise yet compelling manner, that EPM won’t be successful.
    2. Technical Knowledge: Depending on your engineering team needs, you can decide the balance between depth and breadth of technical knowledge you want in a candidate. Again, an EPM cuts across the entire program addressing issues and opportunities, so the ability to synthesize diverse technical disciplines and explain those to others is one of the key skills an EPM brings to the table.  
    3. Synthesizer: An EPM must bring a natural ability to organize disparate information into actionable knowledge, tying their technical knowledge and ability to synthesize this coherently through a strong IQ. A world class EPM balances their IQ with a strong EQ so they can positively interact with the multitude of different personalities and egos associated with a high-performance team. It’s the inter-personal skills that separate a great EPM from a good one.
    4. Always Represent Your Customer Base: Just as you focus on diverse hiring throughout your engineering team, hiring an EPM whose background reflects an underrepresented part of your customer community brings more rounded problem-solving to your team.

When screening EPM candidates, the following questions might give you insights into these attributes:

  • How do you best bundle the vast and disparate data about your program into a form that your executive teams can digest and act upon?
  • What are your best practices to foster great intra-program communication?
  • Give me an example of how you have dealt with conflicts within your program, at the team or individual level.
  • How do you build a realistic schedule? Do you keep multiple versions for different audiences? If so, why?
  • What is one of the most challenging issues you’ve faced managing a program, and how did you resolve it?
  • How do you deal with having the responsibilities associated with an engineering program but not the managerial oversight of resources?
  • When you think of a program you worked on that went well, why do you think it succeeded?
  • How do you deal with high-performance engineers who want to stay focused and not interact regularly with the greater team?

Below are two EPM job descriptions posted by Lemnos portfolio companies that might help you as you hire for you EPM role!